Emotional Wellness: Even CSIs are Allowed to Have Feelings
Written by Maria C. Pettolina   

RESEARCH INVOLVING PHYSIOLOGICAL STRESS and crime scene investigators began surfacing in literature almost a decade ago (Adderley, Smith, Bond, & Smith, 2012). Although there is current research slowly emerging, both in the United States and in other countries, there has been little published throughout the past decade addressing how trauma and PTSD specifically affects crime scene investigators. I would like to give credit to Evidence Technology Magazine for publishing articles on emotional health throughout my time as a subscriber.

Most research on trauma and PTSD is police officer focused and police officer stress is a well-published topic in current literature. How many of you have started a new job and have been given a copy of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement by Kevin Gilmartin? Although this is a fantastic publication, how many of you have read it and thought that it does not really relate to your role? In 2018, the National Institute of Justice funded a project to better understand the work stress and job satisfaction of forensic scientists tasked with the handling and collection of evidence. Approximately 60% of forensic scientists reported that the work was emotionally draining and that they were under intense pressure. But, what about CSIs, and what are we doing to combat this within ourselves and better lead future CSIs?

I can remember the first time the emotional stress of our work “hit” me. I was just a few years out of graduate school and still very excited about the work and the potential to take the lead on big scenes. I was able to land a position in a dream role and as soon as my boots hit the ground it was full steam ahead. The team I was assigned to were true professionals and I received invaluable training in my first two years with the agency. In the first year of the job, I had been involved in close to 200 cases and quickly became acclimated to traumatic deaths and finding the personality, level of dedication, and humor needed to survive in the field. What I did not realize was that I was sacrificing my time off for hobbies, time with my family, and—most importantly—time with myself to process the trauma I was experiencing.

"I was sacrificing my time off for hobbies, time with my family, and—most importantly—time with myself to process the trauma I was experiencing."

I was working for a busy department in North Carolina as a CSI and I had just had a night where I worked two separate shootings, and one of the victims was soon to be deceased. I was told the victim was on life support and I needed to enter the room and collect a gunshot residue kit. As a young and inexperienced CSI, I followed exact instructions and I reluctantly walked into the room and met with the nurse. As I turned around, the family was still in the room giving their emotional goodbyes. “I got this”, I thought. “After all, I signed up for this,” which is something that has been on repeat in my head for the past decade. I realize now that is a coping mechanism most of us use, but, deep down, we do not buy into.

I stood with no emotion as the family audibly processed their loss, and when they walked out, I started the gunshot residue kit collection. At almost that exact moment, the victim was taken off life-support and literally died in my hands. When I finished my overnight shift and drove home, the sun was just starting to rise. I parked my car outside of my apartment building and an overwhelming feeling of emotion, anxiety, and fear came over me. I didn’t cry. In fact, I froze in dead silence. It wasn’t until an hour and a half passed, with the sun rising high, that I realized I had not moved. In that moment, I realized the work that I had chosen to do, the work that I moved away from my family for, was not “normal”. What I could not predict is how that work would affect me for the rest of my life.

The following year, I made the move to Colorado and started a new position in yet another busy agency. A hundred more cases in the field and the Aurora Theater Shooting occurred. I happened to be one of the lead CSIs on the case, certainly not because I was “the best”, but because I was the one to volunteer. I had seen many traumatic deaths before and many traumatic deaths after, but the overwhelming emotional effect the scene processing and the trial took on me is one that has impacted my future career and my life forever.

This article does not have the space to talk about all the inspirational people I have been exposed to as a result of this. But I thank all of the victims’ families, the first responders, and the often-forgotten support staff (CSIs, records, dispatch, property and evidence, victim services, coroner’s/ME offices, etc.) for the bravery and strength they exhibited throughout this time. I find myself reflecting every single day on the injured and the 12 lives that were lost. Those 12 people I never had the honor or privilege to meet, but who will forever be part of my story.

What I have learned over the past decade is that what we see and experience cannot be forgotten, and it is okay to be vulnerable when speaking to coworkers, family members, and—yes—even complete strangers about how this job affects you. Your fellow CSIs get it. They listen, they understand, and they have felt exactly the same at some point in their career. In fact, there are other occupations that may experience similar feelings, like EMS workers, nurses, and doctors. We are not alone.

CSI burnout is a real symptom of unresolved emotions, and we need to recognize this, and we need to do better. Do you know anyone who has retired as a CSI? If you have, were they joyful and happy at the end of their career? Have you seen many esteemed experts literally disappear from the field? Are you yourself looking at another avenue to utilize your skills?

Over the past year, I have had the honor and opportunity to talk to many forensic professionals about the emotional impact of our work. As a tough girl from New Jersey, I want people to see it is okay to be open, to be hurting, and to ask for help. I want people to know that by using your resources, you are not seen as weak. If there are no resources available, make command staff aware that, just like police officers, your emotional heath is important, too. If no one is listening, take your own action—because, at the end of the day, your emotional wellness is your responsibility.

As CSIs, we spend hours to days on-scene, long after the excitement of the police officers’ response—a response where they are risking their own lives—has ended, and we are left to take in all the after-effects of smells, sights, and sounds. I will never forget the eerie sound of hearing a cell phone of a deceased victim ringing and looking down to see “MOM” on the screen, over and over again.

There are very few of us on staff compared to a larger number of commissioned personnel. Our pay is minimal and usually so is the lab budget. If you work a critical incident, you do not get days off. In fact, there are probably calls for service pending, so you need to “suck it up”, move on, and give 100% on every scene. You start to build frustration and anger toward others who you think just do not understand you. You want to scream, “We are not just trash collectors, we are true scientific experts!” If the burnout is left unresolved, you eventually become robotic.

"You want to scream, We are not just trash collectors, we are true scientific experts! If the burnout is left unresolved, you eventually become robotic."

There are times we are not invited to debriefings, we are sometimes left off the list for celebration coins and awards, and I was personally told we were not even on the radar of police psychologists. Although therapy is not for everyone, we are often not given the option of other emotional wellness outlets, such as working out on duty or team-building events. We sometimes simply feel forgotten.

Your mistake can affect the prosecution of an entire case. That is how important your work is. Even when we are sick or emotionally drained, we come into work because there is either no coverage or because we don’t want to leave our coworker helpless. We keep pushing, which affects our time off, including weekends and holidays. The on-call takes enjoyment out of plans, and court always seems to fall during a vacation or on a well-needed scheduled day off. Then we start taking it out on everyone around us, or just completely isolating ourselves or submitting ourselves to binge-watching an entire TV series in one day off. We all can admit we have done that.

When we get home, we don’t want to talk about it. After all, how can family and friends understand what it is like to see an innocent baby deceased or a spouse violently beaten to death. Some of us spend our nights either trying to sleep or falling asleep to only be greeted by nightmares. Any news stories of criminal cases or active shooters spark emotional responses in us. I can personally say that Sandy Hook devastated me. I knew what the inside of the movie theater in Aurora looked like, so to imagine what that Connecticut elementary school looked like, with mostly small children, affected me in the worst way.

In my experience, CSI units can be perceived as being difficult and “trying to get out” of scenes. But, if our departments truly understood our thoughts and experiences, would that perception change?

Last summer, I had the opportunity to build and host an emotional wellness course for crime scene investigators in the State of Colorado. The class was a two-day course, at no cost, and we dedicated those two days to promoting an open space to network, an accepting place to talk, and a receptive environment to hear presentations from psychologists, victims’ families, attorneys, and other CSIs on the importance of our work and the lasting emotional and psychological effect that our work has on our personal and professional lives. The class filled to capacity within two weeks and the feedback was amazing. Simply put, I was told there had never been a class dedicated to CSIs and it was long overdue.

From this training, there were fantastic ideas shared and brave firsthand accounts from CSIs who have struggled with their own emotions as a result of the work. One idea suggested was to build local peer-support networks for forensic specialists. This could include CSIs, death investigators, or latent print examiners. This would be a network where someone struggling can reach out, or a network where peers can proactively connect with a forensic professional involved in a traumatic case. Sometimes all someone needs is a cup of coffee to vent. Or perhaps they want to see a department psychologist, if one is available, but they just don’t have the energy to go through the steps of setting it up. Another idea shared was putting together well-researched, formalized training for law enforcement leaders and presenting that information at command staff meetings.

I completely understand that the job is not all pain and suffering, or else we would not do it, and do it as well as we do. I am honored to have worked with some of the leading forensic experts in our field. As a result of years of not managing the stress and emotions of our job, I have personally decided to step away from scene work and into a consultant role while my physical and emotional self gets a well-needed reset. Even today, the thought of stepping on a crime scene again sparks my anxiety, but then the next minute I miss it very much.

There are even some days where I catch a news story and have an incredible feeling of guilt for not being able to help a fellow colleague. But the realization came that at the end of all of this, I wanted to be known for the person I truly was, and not the person that this career was making me as a direct result of my own unhealthy coping mechanisms. I knew it was time to take a step back, be thankful for the experience and opportunities I have had, and focus on my wellbeing so that I am ready for the next step in this exciting and rewarding career. And who knows, that next step may even be serving as a CSI again.

"What can you do now? Starting today, check in with a coworker."

What can you do now? Starting today, check in with a coworker. Offer to take a yoga class or run the treadmill with them after a shift. Bring them a snack for their next shift; we all love that, even when it is healthy. If they are struggling, ask if you can help arrange professional services. Join with your local forensic professionals and develop a peer support group. Generate conversations and share your own experiences at conferences and at trainings. Inform your command staff on the emerging research. Get out there and start your own research to educate CSIs for generations to come.

This article is here to openly highlight my own experience in hopes that as you read this, you can relate with even a small part of it. Once we are able to put our own egos and ideas of competition aside, we can realize that we cannot only help each other with scene work by sharing our knowledge and specialties, but we can also help support each other and provide guidance to one another when we cannot shake the emotions from a crime scene. Managing our trauma and finding healthy coping mechanisms for our burnout will lead to better work completed on crime scenes, but also—and most importantly—it will lead to a happier and healthier life.

About the Author

Maria C. Pettolina, CSCSA, has over a decade of forensic experience and has worked as an investigator and a supervisor in crime scene and property and evidence. She is currently employed as a forensic consultant in the State of Colorado and is a national speaker on emotional wellness for crime scene investigators. She is the owner of Future Focus Forensics, which offers expert training and consultancy services. Pettolina is a doctoral candidate and is published in the field of forensics. For the past seven years, she has been the lead instructor for a forensics program at a university in Colorado. She has over 1,200 hours of specialized forensic training and has been introduced as an expert in numerous criminal trials. She is a Certified Senior Crime Scene Analyst through the International Association for Identification.

References

Adderley, R., L. Smith, J. Bond, & M. Smith. (2012) Physiological Measurement of Crime Scene Investigator Stress. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 14(166-176). doi:10.1350/ijps.2012.14.2.274

National Institute of Justice (2018). Conditions affecting forensic scientists’ workplace productivity and occupational stress. Retrieved from
http://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/conditions-affecting-forensic-scientists-workplace-productivity-and-occupational

This article appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
Click here to read the full issue.

 
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